Last week, Garrett Orr, a former priest at Georgetown Prep, a prestigious Catholic high school in D.C., was accused of sexual abuse. Orr was a teacher at Prep when I was there in the early 1980s, and I wrote about the scandal here and here.
A commenter named “Todd Ice” left the following comment on my last article:
Here’s an idea, Mark, next time you once again trod out G Prep as a subject or backdrop or mention your book, why not write about how the school is a place (more now than in the past) for the wealthy and privileged, most of whose political views stem not from reasoned analysis, but because they do not question what their rich daddies tell them to think as they graduate from the country club to a life handed to them on a silver platter. In many ways I would take a Tea Party small business owner from Alabama over a DC-area county club repub preppie whose so-called religious orthodoxy does not stop him from [sexual promiscuity]. There are many good things about Prep. One thing not so good was and is the rampant illegal alcohol consumption, occasional drug use and pre-marital sex by lots of kids from conservative families. Why don’t you write about that, Mark?
Todd Ice has a point, and it gets to the very heart of the Catholic sex abuse scandal. (He also said I had unresolved issues from my youth. Who doesn’t?)
The best book written about the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church is Philip F. Lawler’s “The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture,” published in 2010 and just recently issued in paperback. In it, Lawler outlines the three intertwined scandals that need to be understood in order to understand the scandal. His broader, overarching point is that the Catholic Church in the 20th century lost its way because it became more about politics than about the soul. It became a civic, social, and career institution, not a spiritual one. Of course, Catholic social thought and the gospel itself entails involvement with politicians and the public. But for many in the Church, Catholicism — and its schools — became a way to push political agendas and climb social and career ladders. In this, Todd Ice is absolutely right. One only has to look at the history of the Kennedy family and the Kennedys’ interactions with the Church to see that. No member of the left-wing, pro-abortion “royal family” of America was ever challenged by authorities in the Church — or at least they weren’t until quite recently, which I will get to at the end of this piece.
The terrible tragedy of the Catholic Church losing its spiritual integrity is explored in more detail by Lawler in his breakdown of the sex scandal into three parts.
The first, of course, is the scandal of the sexual abuse of young boys by priests. Lawler describes this as an absolute horror, but also notes that, while one abuser is too many, the number of priests who abused kids was a small percentage of the number of active priests — and much smaller than the number of abuse cases in public schools. The problem was that the same abusers kept getting sent from parish to parish. This was done because of cowardice and stupidity; the bishops didn’t want to upset things. The existence of evil and how it endangers the soul didn’t seem to be a consideration. And while there is a galaxy of difference between drug taking and sexual promiscuity on the one hand and the abuse of children on the other, there is, as Todd Ice indicates, a thread connecting them — teachers and Church leaders who look the other way for fear of offending the wealthy and powerful.
This is as true with conservatives as it is with liberals. When my book about Georgetown Prep was published, my publisher and I attempted to get a booking on Bill Bennett’s radio show. Bennett had two sons attending Prep at the time. Bennett never responded. He seems quite capable of diagnosing moral problems in the culture at large, but not in the very school his sons were attending. This has to do with what Lawler addressed in “The Faithful Departed” — the transformation of the Catholic Church into a social-climbing and civil institution, not a spiritual one.
The second scandal Lawler discusses is the prevalence of homosexuality among Catholic priests. When the Catholic sex abuse crisis exploded in 2002, bishops went to Rome to meet with Vatican officials. Initially they were prepared to deal with the question of the “lavender mafia,” the massive influx of gay men into the priesthood in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. After all, at that point it was hard to avoid — some more unenlightened lay Catholics and common-sense Americans were actually asking if having so many liberal gay men running Catholic all-boys schools like Georgetown Prep was such a good idea. But the bishops shrank from confronting this uncomfortable question. Instead, they endorsed the conclusion of researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. In 2009 the researchers reported that homosexuality was not a factor in the abuse scandal, despite the fact that the vast majority of abuse cases involved boys. Rather, the abusers were “confused about their sexuality.” Further, “someone can commit sexual acts that might be of a homosexual nature, but not have a homosexual identity.”
This muddle brought a memorial rejoinder by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who explained the bishops’ logic this way: “Between men who want to have sex with adolescent boys and men who do not want to have sex with adolescent boys, the former are more likely to have sex with adolescent boys.” Lawler is also not convinced: “Thus the John Jay report, strongly endorsed by the U.S. Bishops’ conference, asked readers to believe that priests who engaged in homosexual acts were not necessarily homosexuals. And since the priests who molested teenage boys were not necessarily homosexuals, it followed, by a sort of manufactured tautology, that homosexuality was not an important factor in their story.”
The third scandal is the cover-up of the abuse by American bishops — their negligence. Many of the men who covered up the scandal or moved abusive priests from parish to parish were not punished. They had grown soft and politically compromised. Decisions were made for secular, social and political reasons — for “the good of the Church.”
In Lawler’s formulation, the Catholic hierarchy has dealt with the first part of the scandal, the abuse of kids, but not the other two — the “lavender mafia” and the spiritual and political cowardice that has compromised the Church. However, Lawler opens the recent paperback edition with an example that suggests that the Church’s attitude may be beginning to change. In 2009, Congressman Patrick Kennedy attacked the bishops for their opposition to taxpayer-funded health care that included abortion coverage. In a reaction that shocked everyone, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence fought back. “I’m not sure you fulfill the basic requirements of being a Catholic,” he wrote in a public letter. Three months later, Kennedy announced he was not running for reelection. I’m not saying this was the result of the tough bishop. But it certainly did not hurt that Tobin cared more about Kennedy’s soul than about staying in good graces with the Kennedys.
I will end with a story I heard and corroborated with a witness. When the first accusation against Fr. Orr surfaced a few years ago, the parents of the boy who made the accusation were shunned by some members of the faculty at the school. In one instance, a faculty member literally turned her back on the parents as they were walking down the hall to meet with the headmaster. Yet the parents passed this gauntlet in order to do the right thing. In short, they showed more courage than many bishops have shown in dealing with this scandal. They didn’t care about “the good of the Church.” They cared about their son, and the good of the soul. Which in the end will help the Church much more than who you know.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.